What in the World is going on at CSX and Amtrak?

The latest round of tragic incidents at CSX and AMTRAK is causing a number of news outlets to reach out to Railroad Workers United to gain a rank & file worker perspective. In the past few months, RWU has been contacted by The Wall Street Journal, The Associated Press and several other news outlets, including a business journal that is based in none other than CSX’s hometown of Jacksonville, FL.

The Voice of the Working Railroader is what is Needed

The questions are wide ranging, understandably well intentioned, and urgent. The common complaint from the journalists that we have talked to is that they lack the perspective from union officials and working railroaders. Many of the journalists report that the company press agents as well as the unions are only willing to release broad generalized statements that offer no real content that would help them with their investigative reporting. RWU hopes to engage rank and file workers in the discussion, providing the media and the general public with the invaluable “inside” perspective that only working railroaders can provide.

CSX Background to Disaster

Before Mantle Ridge and their CEO, superstar Hunter Harrison hedged their way into CSX, employees had already been through several recent rounds of harsh top down management changes, decreed under Cindy Sanborn’s leadership. Union safety programs that were working with management were abolished. Company safety councils were implemented with no input from or involvement with union safety coordinators. Rules violations that were historically not a disciplined offense were now considered major rules infractions.

Very strict rules were put into place that were designed to address safety, especially rules pertaining to switching operations. Draconian attendance policies were put into place. Employees needing to mark off to visit the doctor were being disciplined due to the inhumane nature of these new policies. Seniority rosters were being dovetailed, causing workers to qualify at locations far from their home terminals, being forced to qualify upwards for thirty days or more on their own time (i.e., no paycheck) with no reimbursement for lodging.

And then came Hunter Harrison …

Operational rules that had been established under the previous regime were rolled back. Modes of operation that had been deemed unsafe were now considered normal practice. Workers that were never trained on many of these “new” procedures were being expected to just cope with old school style railroading (“kicking” cars into tracks, getting on/off moving equipment, performing “flying switches”, etc.) all part of what Hunter Harrison was branding, “Precision Railroading.”

Managers were being cut daily and were running scared that if they “made the cut”, that they might be next to be out of a job. Production numbers were being misrepresented to keep the new regime happy. The injuries and fatalities were mounting, crews were being worked to extreme fatigue levels, freight was not being delivered and shippers were not being serviced.

The deadly derailment involving a CSX freight train and an AMTRAK passenger train is reminiscent of the 2005 Graniteville, SC incident of a similar nature; i.e. a misaligned switch that resulted in a moving freight train running into another that was stationary. That wreck instigated the Federal Railroad Administration to issue an “Emergency Order” that resulted in the railroads issuing a new operating rule and a new a Switch Awareness Form that was to be completed by the Locomotive Engineer, Conductor and Train Dispatcher.

The new procedure was put into place to address the issue that seemingly may have been a major factor in this latest tragedy. However, under Sanborn, train dispatchers were cut, dispatcher desks were consolidated, and workers were being forced to dispatch territories they had never had the chance to physically see, nor were they given the proper “qualifying” time to become familiar with them.

According to CSX, the company’s “Precision Railroading” is taking a tad longer to implement but is in fact working. We would ask, “Working for who?” It might be working for the stockholders and hedge fund investors, but CSX employees, shippers, trackside communities, and passengers may beg to differ. At the end of the day, what remains to be seen is the long-term effects a profit hungry hedge-fund can do to a rail corporation when drastic changes are made to increase shareholder dividend and stock price at the expense of railroad safety. In the meantime, what appears to be happening – not just at CSX but throughout the rail industry – is a regular headline of yet another tragic news story concerning a train wreck, derailment, and/or dead or severely injured passengers and/or workers.

Meanwhile, at Amtrak …

While Amtrak is a different sort of rail carrier, one not obsessed with its short-term profits and the concerns of impatient stockholders, the company is similarly distracted by budget cutting, budget balancing and performance numbers, all at the expense of safety. At the end of 2017, newly hired CEO Richard Anderson (of Delta airlines “profitability” fame) took the helm and declared that Amtrak will – after 45 years – run in the black. A ‘buyout” of 500 managers was announced and the ranks of managers were decimated on December 31st, 2017. Meantime, the company is focused on cost-cutting at every turn in order to meet the lofty financial goals.

What all of this means for safe operations remains to be seen, but first glance at the wreck of Amtrak #501 in December points to a corporation that is potentially tainted by a “hurry up” culture to cut corners, get more production with less manpower, and is otherwise obsessed with short-term budget balancing than in long-term viability, health, and safety of the enterprise.

Conclusion

As much as the railroads would have us believe that safety is about slogans, programs, indoctrination, and “culture”, it is not. Safety is about pinpointing and eliminating hazards and allocating the necessary resources to eliminate them because these hazards are what lie behind each and every injury, every fatality, and every train wreck.

To solve the safety issues at Amtrak and CSX (and other railroads, or any corporation), the carrier must devote the adequate and necessary resources to ensure that every worker is properly equipped to do the job right every time. That means the corporation provides for adequate training, proper qualifying time, humane work schedules, adequate time off, proper maintenance of equipment, regular meeting with employee representatives, addressing and ameliorating hazards as they are identified, and a commitment to a high quality of work life for each and every employee involved in safety sensitive functions.

John Paul Wright – Railroad Workers United

 


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